"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
What has surprised you most about the book business?
I’ll be honest, I was reluctant to answer this question at first because I confess I’m someone who thinks concentrating too much on the book business can be counterproductive for writers. Going to panels about publishing or subscribing to Publisher’s Lunch (don’t do it!) or obsessively Googling a certain agent can fill you with all kinds of ideas about what you think publishers want, and can distract you from exactly the thing that makes your book good.
But the truth is that much of the experience of publishing a book has surprised me, some of which would probably have been helpful to know. So here’s A List of Things About Publishing I Wish I’d Known.
1. Subject matter matters
I feel like I’m bordering on saying something sacrilegious here, but here it goes: There’s a common strain of thinking among writers, particularly literary writers and the institutions that foster them (conference/colonies/workshops), that insists a book is only as good as its writing. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this belief and have defended it to both students and friends. Every one of my favorite books is a little case study in this — a subject that I knew little about or could care less for (or, worse, assumed I knew very well) that on the page came vividly, mind-alteringly alive. They’re books that transcend their subjects and they do this, always, through the spell of the language. Trying to shortcut that work by choosing a subject that is already salacious or provocative or easy seems to me like a cynical move that underestimates the reader, or is just kind of lazy. Most of the time subject matter finds you, not the other way around. It’s what fascinates or angers or scares you, it’s a deeply internal (and unteachable) part of writing that seems less of a choice than a discovery.
But here was Lesson One in my publishing education: Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will. And that will be how the book is sold, how it’s marketed and publicized, and largely how it finds its way to readers. In the glut of a given publishing week, where reviewers and editors have galleys piled by the dates on their spines, books are judged by their covers — or at least by their tag lines. This is just the reality: The people deciding which books to push and which ones to skip don’t have time to read everything. So while I still think it’s a mistake to consider the market as a primary factor in writing anything, in the future if I’m drawn to two projects equally, I might start with the novel about conjoined-twin assassins before the quiet, semi-autobiographical coming of age tale. Or better yet, a quiet, semi-autobiographical coming of age tale about conjoined-twin assassins. You’re welcome to steal that.
2. People in the book biz actually want to love your book
Though from afar it’s easy to imagine the publishing business as either a collection of jaded gatekeepers who enjoy affirming their superiority by rejecting your work, or as a bunch of crass entertainment execs chasing the next megahit, I’ve been disappointed to find that it’s actually neither. Everyone who I’ve encountered in the book biz — from editorial to sales — seems disarmingly genuine about their love of books, and their jobs are pretty much like everyone else’s in the world, which is to say torn between reconciling their passion with the realities of the market. Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.
3. It’s slow for a reason
As a good rule of thumb it’s usually a full year between when you turn in your final edits and when your book comes out. I, for one, was rather vocal among friends about this glacial pace. I mean, how many meetings were needed to decide to hit print? It wasn’t until my pub day actually came and suddenly people from all parts of my life were texting me photos of my book in their local store or library that I understood what on earth all that time was for. Getting a book into the world, it turns out, is an enormous endeavor, one based, still, on old-fashioned person-to-person communication. Yes, a book can be physically produced in a handful of weeks, but it takes a human being reading it, understanding how to talk about it, and suggesting it in person to another human being (who happens to run a retail outlet that suggests books to a community of human beings) for your book to actually make it into the world. Multiply that process by the number of booksellers, magazine editors, book reviewers, bloggers, social media loudmouths and public radio nerds nationwide and this takes some time. The upshot of this for the writer is you have a year to move on, start something else, and distance yourself from the material. By the time your first grade teacher and all your exes are reading it, it feels a little like somebody else wrote it. And I’ve found that to be very helpful.
4. People talk
This is maybe the corollary to the last point but the book business is relatively small and pretty social. Editors move houses, companies are combined, interns become bosses — and chances are the whole industry is about two-degrees of separation. Not that anyone should need a reason to be kind or decent or not a dick, but there’s one.
5. Don’t respond to critics
I guess this one is something I knew, that everyone knows, but in practice it takes some — um — getting used to. Nobody wants to hear from you about your reviews. It’s a long-accepted code that the writer shouldn’t respond to critics, no matter how unfair their reading might be — the most they can do is ignore it, shrug it off, keep writing. But in the wonderfully interconnected world we live in this becomes increasingly difficult, as anybody can slap a star rating on your book and write whatever they want under its cover image. They can get basic facts wrong, invent whole theories about the book’s intentions, bandy about the words “relatable” and “likable” as the primary modes by which a book should be judged (as though the best thing a novel can do is make its reader comfortable) and you, as the person whose name is attached to it, have to pretend you aren’t really there, watching them, gagged by social code. I guess what I’m saying is that it sucks, but of course it’s also exhilarating, especially when you see a stranger who actually gets the book, who connects with it on some level, and are able to eavesdrop on them describing it. The thrill of this, of refreshing the page to see whether you’ll be wounded or praised, can become addictive, and also toxic. It only took about a week for me to notice I was having little conversations with myself, whispering my responses to these comments while I walked the dog. “Stop looking,” my wife finally said. “You’re torturing yourself. I keep tabs on all of it, and will tell you if there’s anything you need to know.” And what she means is that she’ll report only five-star reviews and comparisons to recognized geniuses. I recommend this solution.
6. Selling a book won’t change your life — except it kind of will
OK, here’s a little experiment in radical honesty. I sold my book for $25,000. I also sold some foreign rights, which ended up about tripling that, minus taxes and agent fees. I am proud of this and see it as a huge personal success, though during the years that I worked on the book it would be a lie to say I hadn’t maintained a vague idea that if I could just finish the thing and sell it that it would relieve my money worries and set me on a path to financial stability. I think this is something I had to tell myself, that there was a promised land just over the horizon, so I should keep going. And while it feels overly cynical to say that for a writer financial concerns will never go away, here’s what I’ve come to realize: For a writer financial concerns will never go away. There are many exceptions to the rule, of course, but most of what we do is trade the time that we could be making money for the time to write. Sometimes those two equal out, but for most people they don’t. So you have to figure out how you define success. Is it readership? Is it recognition? Is it in how much you produce? Or in how you feel about your own work? I’m still negotiating this with myself and probably will be forever, but one thing I have noticed is that having the book out in public has already changed my relationship to writing, and not in the ways that I thought it would. I worried that I would become fixated on how the next thing would be received, bringing everyone in publishing and the wider reading world into the room with me, but it has actually made the process more private, more internal. It’s no longer about clearing some imaginary bar of professionalism, no longer about gaining entry into some club. I’ve talked about this with a friend of mine who’s a musician, but putting something out in the world and listening to the cacophony of reactions can actually have the effect of releasing you from what you had imagined others wanted, and in a way giving you back your space. This, for me, has been the healthiest outcome of publishing a book, and something I don’t think I would have gotten without it. Permission, I guess, to no longer ask for permission.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)